Auto-Tune, for all intents and purposes, is a gimmick. The pitch-correction software, released in 1997 by Antares Audio Technologies, was originally meant to be used to smooth out off-key vocals in studio recordings. In fact, it’s most likely been used on a lot of albums that you’ve heard without you even realizing it. But thanks to artists like Cher, Kanye West, and T-Pain, Auto-Tune became more than a studio production tool—it became an effect, a kind of distorted, robotic stylization that ended up changing popular music as we know and hear it. Many have long decried its use as a fad, but here we are, 22 years later, and it’s still in countless charting hit songs, a prominent and stable part of the popular music landscape. Not bad for a gimmick.
NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts are also, essentially, a gimmick. And they’re a spectacular gimmick at that. Started in 2008 as a means of getting artists to perform in a more intimate setting at the Washington, D.C. NPR studios, drawing more publicity to the public radio music bureau, the Tiny Desk Concerts have hosted hundreds of artists over the years, and have even launched an annual contest for unsigned bands to be given a bigger platform. (Many San Diego bands have entered the contest, and I’m a fan of The Havnauts’ entry.) Something you won’t hear often at Tiny Desk Concerts, however, is Auto-Tune. And in 2014 when T-Pain, one of our generation’s most prolific Auto-Tune artistes, performed at NPR, he revealed a sound wholly unfamiliar to most: his natural singing voice. And it’s a hell of a voice at that.
"This is weird as hell for me," T-Pain says at the beginning of the video. It at first seems like a weird fit, the R&B icon whose records have sold millions of copies sitting on a stool in a quiet studio in front of an intimate seated audience. But as soon as he begins crooning his way through "Buy U A Drank," he ultimately transforms into an entirely new artist. T-Pain, born Faheem Rasheed Najm, can turn out a party anthem like few other artists of this millennium. But those same anthems also make for some pretty stellar ballads when stripped to more modest arrangements and T-Pain’s own vulnerable and emotional vocal talents.
T-Pain’s appearance on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert happened five years ago, nearly a decade after the release of his debut album Rappa Ternt Sanga, and it’s become one of the most popular installments of the series with 14 million views, topping even Adele. (Only Anderson .Paak and the late Mac Miller have surpassed him.) And as such, it’s inspired similarly effects-free appearances and performances in the years since. He did a brief a cappella demonstration on Arsenio in 2016, noting that "It’s not really aiding me in any way." He was also quick to point out that Auto-Tune’s pitch-correction technology can’t work miracles; if you’re tone deaf, he says, "it won’t make you sound like a cross between Fergie and Jesus."
Then, in 2017 he performed an even more melancholy medley of his hits on To the Beat With Kurt Schneider—and the anguish and emotion was even more palpable. To top it all off, in the most absurd way possible, T-Pain won the first season of reality competition The Masked Singer, which he did in a goofy, furry monster costume. He did it, of course, without Auto-Tune, which in hindsight probably made it even more difficult for viewers to identify his voice.
Some of the reaction to T-Pain’s stripped-down NPR performance seemed a bit condescending, however. I should hope that nobody was really surprised that a multi-million selling pop artist could actually sing. No, the surprising part was that he lifted the veil and let listeners catch a glimpse of a more intimate and vulnerable side of him as an artist. He hasn’t stopped using Auto-Tune, as his new album 1UP proves, but he’s also shown that he’s capable of surprising us. And for an artist well into his second decade of performing and releasing music, that’s an extremely valuable thing.
Other Recommended Shows This Week:
Girlpool (April 5, Casbah): I first saw Girlpool in 2015 opening for Waxahatchee, and their set was pretty stripped-down, just two musicians singing and playing guitar and bass. But since then they’ve built up their sound, filled in some of those open spaces, and have grown into a pretty impressive dream pop band on new album What Chaos Is Imaginary.
Chris Barton Art Show (April 6, Fall Brewing): This isn’t a live music performance, but rather an art show and beer release. But music is at the center of it all—Chris Barton is a visual artist who has worked on a number of major films, including the Star Wars and Harry Potter film franchises, and one of his major art projects is creating giant cassettes. There’s nothing quite like that favorite David Bowie or Johnny Cash tape you nearly wore out, especially when it’s the size of a coffee table! And while Fall will be unveiling a new brew, all of their beers are tied to music in some way or another, like their Plenty for All pilsner, named after a song by local punks Hot Snakes.
JS Ondara (April 10, Casbah): JS Ondara was born in Kenya, but his music is pure Americana. The young singer/songwriter plays a powerful, bluesy kind of folk rock that’s driven by his stunning vocals. He’s a versatile performer and an impressive songwriter, and the kind of artist worth keeping your eye on in the years to come.